Alien life could be hidden just inches under the surface of Mars, scientists say
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The surface of Mars is dry, cold, and bathed in deadly radiation.
But inches below the Martian surface there could be a hidden habitat that’s teeming with microscopic alien life.
New evidence suggests subsurface ice trapped in the Red Planet’s soil could be constantly interacting with a salty permafrost, melting and refreezing to create a dynamic environment for Martian life.
Study leader Dr Janice Bishop, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute in California, said: "I am excited about the prospect of microscale liquid water on Mars in near-surface environments where ice and salts are present.
"This could revolutionise our perspective on habitability just below the surface on Mars today."
Her Seti colleague Dr Zachary Burton, a co-author of the study added: "Sediments in the Dry Valleys provide an excellent testbed for processes that may be occurring on Mars."
This strange environment has also been compared to conditions in the underground lakes of Antarctica – home to strange shrimps and "swimming cucumbers".
The findings are based on images captured by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – the most powerful imaging device ever sent to another planet.
They show streaks of moisture on sun-facing slopes appearing and disappearing over time. The observations were confirmed by a computer model, lab experiments that showed how they could only be caused by salty meltwaters.
The same phenomenon has been seen in similar environments on Earth such as the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, the Dead Sea in Israel and the Atacama Desert in Chile.
When salts mix with water underground the reaction causes disruptions on the surface – including collapses and fast-moving landslides of the kind now being observed on Mars.
The potential for thin films of water existing below the surface in salty permafrost regions opens new doors for exploring habitability, said the researchers.
These projections could provide a new focus for NASA’s Perseverance probe, which is due to touch down on February 18.
The robot rover is equipped with a large coring drill to collect rock samples for signs of life.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, suggests Mars continues to be dynamic – and is still evolving.
It has dramatic implications both for astrobiology and for future human missions to the Red Planet.
Last year a study by Italian astronomers working at the National Institute of Astrophysics in Bologna predicted that life could be thriving in huge lakes buried a mile beneath the Martian south pole.
They say confirming their prediction would require building a flying robot " which is capable of drilling through 1.5km of ice …and this will certainly require some technological developments that at the moment are not available.”
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